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Iran’s Persepolis, Ancient Persian Capital

Persepolis, Iran

Powerful Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Empire from about 500 BC until 330 BC, when it was sacked by Alexander the Great. The ruins of the terraced complex of palaces, with evocative reliefs of scenes throughout, wow visitors today.

Complete Video Script

An hour's drive from Shiraz takes us to Persepolis the dazzling capital of the Persian Empire back when it reached from Greece all the way to India. Built by Darius and his son Xerxes the Great around 500 BC, this was the awe-inspiring home of the 'king of kings' for nearly 200 years.

I'd always dreamed of visiting Persepolis and it didn't disappoint. For me, this is the most magnificent ancient sight between the Holy Land and India.

The vast complex is a series of royal palaces built on a massive elevated terrace. At the time Persia was so mighty, no fortifications were needed. Still 10,000 guards served at the pleasure of the emperor.

At the "Nations' Gate" dignitaries from the 28 nations subjugated by Persia entered "we're not worthy"-style to pay their taxes and humble respect to the emperor.

Cuneiform inscriptions, from 500 BC, say the same thing in three languages. Essentially: the king is empowered by god. Submit totally to him for the good of Persia. All nations can live in peace…if you are compliant.

The palace of Xerxes is called the Columned Palace because it once had 72 columns. The uniquely decorative Persian capitals recall the distinct power and pride of this civilization. Imagine its immense roofs spanned by precious Lebanese cedar carried all the way from the Mediterranean. It was under Xerxes that the Persians defeated the Greeks and burned and pillaged Athens in 480 BC.

Next to the columned palace is the throne hall marked by its distinctive collection of mighty doorways. The throne hall was used mainly for receptions for military commanders and representatives of all the subjugated nations of the Empire. The frames are elaborately decorated.

Evocative reliefs survive throughout the ruins of Persepolis. Supplicants gracefully climb the same steps we do, bringing offerings to the king. Lions, a symbol of might, represented both the king and the power of the seasons. In this recurring scene, a lion kills a bull symbolizing spring killing winter and bringing new life. Then, as today, Iranians celebrated their new year on the 21st of March, the first day of spring.

The figure on the eagle's wing, that symbol of the Zoroastrian faith, is a reminder that the king's power came from Ahuramazda — the Zoroastrian god.

Imagine this place at its zenith: the ceremonial headquarters of the Persian Empire. Coming here you have high expectations. Being here, they are exceeded. Iranians visit with a great sense of pride. For an American, it'd be like having Montecello, Cape Canaveral, and Mount Rushmore all rolled into one magnificent sight.

Gigantic royal tombs, reminiscent of those built for Egyptian pharaohs, are cut into the adjacent mountainside. The scale of Darius and Xerxes' tombs is intended to dwarf the mere mortals viewing them. Each comes with huge carved reliefs displaying their battle prowess. Even today — 2500 years after their deaths — they're reminding us of their great power.

As history has taught us, no empire lasts forever. In 333 BC Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great — the Macedonian Greek who turned the tide against the Persian Empire. Ending Persian dominance, Alexander spread his Greek culture all the way to India. And Persepolis has been in ruins ever since.